From Hill To Valley, A Long-Winded Postcard From The Road
The drive from Spring Hill, Tennessee to Valley, Alabama was uneventful... until we were almost there. So close. That's a fairly generic name for a town, though, isn't it? Valley. It's like finding a good spot for a town, planting your flag, and naming it River or Forest or Hill. I know, that is how some towns around the world are named, but it sounds better in a foreign language. At least Spring Hill has "spring" in it.
Whatever. The reason for our trip was not a happy excuse for a weekend getaway. We were going to a funeral, and it was important to Tara that she attend this one, if at all possible. I was just along for the ride. Elizabeth was staying behind with Tara's sister, Sandy, a.k.a. Auntie. Just don't call her Aunt Sandy. Long story not worth telling.
The fastest route looks obvious on the map: South on I-65 for several hours to Montgomery, then northeast on I-85 to Valley, which sits on the line between Alabama and Georgia. North of Birmingham, we were diverted by Apple Maps to an alternate route on state and U.S. highways. This route -- allegedly faster -- wanted us on Interstate 20 for a little bit before putting us on the same U.S. Highway 431 that passes through Spring Hill, only a couple hundred miles south. Tara checked Google Maps on her phone, and it suggested the same route. Must be a major slow-down ahead, we figured. We would have passed through Birmingham in the middle of the afternoon rush hour, so it made sense.
Now heading east on I-20, we came upon the apparently famous Buc-ee's, the world's largest convenience store. You read that right. And Tara insisted we stop. I'd never heard of it until an hour before, during early dinner at Cracker Barrel, when she said if we happened to see a Buc-ee's we should stop. You think she had anything to do with this detour? She is fairly magical, but probably not.
A gas station/convenience store chain small in number but huge in individual store size, it was apparently all the rage on Tik-Tok or one of those social networks Tara belongs to that I don't. We got off the Interstate and I had to admit, "Wow, that is one helluva gas station." A dozen bays/aisles or so. I didn't count, but it was more than I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot of gas stations. I'm not bragging, but, you get to a certain age and the special moments add up.
To be honest, Buc-ee's was just another gas station convenience store, albeit thirty times bigger than most, with a hunting gear section. I was not particularly impressed... until I used the bathroom. You read that right. They had a great men's room. It was just so huge... and clean. You know how disgusting most public restrooms are, but these were very nice. The ladies room was probably even nicer, but they wouldn't let me in and I never asked Tara about her own experience.
While she continued to shop for souvenirs, I went back to the car to wait it out. I guess I needed to sit down after such a mind-blowing bathroom experience. Anyway, sitting in the car, I noticed a "positions available" sign with Buc-ee's hourly rates for various jobs. Cashiers make $15, cooks make even more -- they have a diner offering just about everything, mostly deep-fried Southern-style -- the next level job was higher, and so on until you get to department managers who can earn as much or more than I do as a corporate IT specialist with 30 years experience. That was kind of depressing, actually. For the same pay I'm making now I could be working at a gas station convenience store... with all that glamor.
Just a few more miles east on I-20, we finally took the U.S. 431 exit. Those last few miles into Valley had us on a stretch of dark, hilly, country road with a stated speed limit of 55. Most of the way, I had my car -- an 8-year-old dark brown (almost black) Ford Escape, if you're wondering -- on cruise control at 60 mph.
I was catching up to the cars ahead of me, though, and have never been one to get in line behind a bunch of other cars. In fact, my perfect highway traffic situation is to be that lone vehicle travelling between packs in front of and behind me. Some people need to pass everyone they see. I usually just want to be left alone. A lot like my philosophy on life, I suppose....
Where was I? Oh yeah, I undid cruise control, but kept my speed around 60. There was nothing unsafe about it, but when we came to a downhill section in Roanoke -- where the cops were clearly lying in wait for us in the darkness -- my car naturally sped up. Gravity does that, even in Alabama.
Blue lights appeared several hundred yards behind me, but they were so far back I wasn't entirely sure I was their target. I pulled over like you're supposed to, anyway, and they pulled in right behind me. "Crap," I said to Tara, "this trip just got more expensive."
"I pulled you over for speeding," the friendly officer explained. Other than briefly blinding me with his flashlight, he was very polite. "Where you headed?"
"Valley," I said, "to a funeral." I purposely mentioned that, hoping for sympathy.
"I clocked you at 68," he said, not particularly sympathetic, "but the speed limit along this stretch is 55."
I hadn't been paying that close attention, but it seemed high. "68!? Really?"
"Yes, sir," he nodded and smiled as he took my license and insurance card. He never asked for my registration, though that might have been because I was already handing him the just-mentioned two cards, so he rolled with it. I don't know. The cop talking to me was a black man, maybe 30. The other one, pointing his flashlight into our car from the other side -- though I had turned on the overhead cabin light purposely to allay their fears -- was white and in his early 20s.
Something odd that one (maybe both) of them did after we first pulled over and they approached on foot was to tap the back end of my car. I thought they were making sure the trunk (hatchback, in my case) was closed. I don't know.
"No," Tara explained later. "They were putting their fingerprints on our car."
"In case you kill them and get away, when they find your car they can dust for fingerprints and prove you were the one that did it." I had no idea, but she nodded and said, "Learned that on Tik-Tok."
It took forever for them to run my information through their system as we sat idling on the side of the road. And, I never knew it was actually two cop cars that pulled me over until the second one pulled back onto the highway from behind us and took off at a high rate of speed. I figured he spotted someone else to pull over. Several cars had sped past, thinking they were safe because the cops were otherwise occupied.
I'm not sure what "my" cops were doing back there behind me. Tara guessed they were looking for a reason to arrest me, or at least make this stop worth their time -- thanks for the encouraging words, honey -- running my name through every system they had. As we sat awaiting their verdict, she turned around in her seat and did a three-second video of the flashing blue lights behind us. "Guess what we're doing right now?" she narrated and posted it in a group text to her sisters, mother, and our daughter Elizabeth, who has had her license less than six months.
It was a good ten minutes before the cops finally returned to us. This time the white one was talking to me while the other one stood guard on the passenger side. Tara might bolt, you know. She had that look in her eye.
They seemed almost surprised themselves when they said we were being let off with just a written warning. No ticket. The cop on my side couldn't let me go without a lecture, of course. "Just watch your speed. I know you're in a hurry, but it's better to arrive late than not at all!"
I nodded and said, "Yes, sir!" I'm such a suck-up, but I was happy to not be getting a ticket.
The responses to Tara's impromptu video consisted mostly of "LOLs," but she made a point of telling Elizabeth, "I just wanted you to see what can happen when you don't pay attention to your speed! Luckily, we got off with just a warning, but only because Dad hasn't been arrested or had a ticket in 20 years!"
To clarify, I have never been arrested. Ever. Period. And that's saying something, given some of the stupid things I've done. I have been in a couple of accidents in those 20 years, though. One of them was my fault, the other one was not. And, I used to get speeding tickets fairly regularly in my 20s, but it has been quite a while. I think the reason we got off with just a warning this time was because one of their systems popped up with a message: "Do NOT mess with this guy! Just let him go, and count your blessings." That's my theory, anyway.
Sandy said she checked our location on Life 360 (a surveillance/location app) during all this. We had added her to our "circle" before the trip, in case of emergency. And, apparently at one point it said Tara was moving again while I was not. Sandy thought, "Crap, Bill's been arrested and Tara's just leaving without him!"
I had good laugh over that. I was never nervous about being pulled over. The typical butterflies only very briefly appeared in my stomach before dissapearing to wherever stomach butterflies disappear to. I was calm and friendly throughout the experience, but I needed that laugh.
On a more serious note, the reason for our trip was that funeral the next morning. One of Tara's church friends had only just moved to Spring Hill with her family a year and a half ago -- for her husband's job -- when she developed a breathing problem, was admitted to the hospital and, sadly, died much too young at the age of 50, leaving a husband, two teenage kids, and her 80-year-old grieving mother behind. No, it was not covid.
Tara said the service was very nice. Her friend was popular and the place was packed. "You couldn't not like her if you met her," she said. "People flew in from all over the country." I didn't go in, just dropped Tara off, then drove around for the duration, checking out the surrounding area. As mentioned, Valley is right there on the Georgia state line, so I passed through West Point, Georgia. And, now I can tell people "I went to West Point!" which is probably a tired old joke there.
Tara insisted we stick to Interstates 85 and 65 for the return trip, and I was fine with that, despite our phones' map programs suggesting those minor highways again. What's up with that, anyway? It should be obvious it's faster to stay on the Interstates, even if you go a little bit south before heading north. You can go 75 or 80 most of the way -- faster when you've got a stray Ferrari on your tail -- rather than detour through winding country highways and those little towns with speed limits anywhere from 35 to 55 where the cops -- although very polite -- lie in wait.
Interstate 85 took us through Auburn -- famous for its college football team -- and Montgomery, famous for several things, but most notably for country music fans as the town where Hank Williams died. Before you get to Auburn and Montgomery, though, you pass through Opelika where we shared our first-ever Whataburger experience. We were getting off the highway for lunch, anyway, not sure where to stop. Tara was starving after the emotional hour-long memorial and having earlier tossed most of her "crappy" free hotel breakfast into the trash. When I first saw the big "W" sign for Whataburger, I thought it was one of those old Der Wienerschnitzel restaurants we had in Sacramento as a kid. They're still around? I thought. But, no, it was a Whataburger, and one of Tara's favorite podcasters raves about it, so we had to give it a try. My Pico de Gallo Burger was delicious, but Tara didn't like the spicy ketchup they put on her basic "No. 1" burger.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to run to the carwash to get all those fingerprints off. I love my car, but am looking to replace it with something newer... and bigger in case I have to sleep in it if I'm let go from my corporate job for refusing that "vaccine," then passed over for one of those Buc-ee's jobs.
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